IBM: Consumers Question Whether Food is Safe

Discussion
Jun 26, 2009
George Anderson

By George Anderson

Fewer than 20 percent of consumers trust food companies to
produce and sell products that are safe and healthy for them to eat, according
to a new study by IBM.

Sixty percent of consumers in the 10 largest cities in the
U.S said they were concerned about the safety of food they buy.

The large number of well-publicized recalls in recent years
appears to have had an effect on consumers’ perceptions of food safety.
A total of 83 percent of respondents said they could name at least one
item recalled over the past two years. Forty-six percent mentioned peanut
butter, the most frequently identified recall of the past two years. Spinach
was mentioned by roughly 15 percent.

"Across the board, consumers are demanding transparency
and more information about the food they purchase to ensure their safety
and that of their families,"
said Guy Blissett, consumer products leader, IBM Institute for Business Value,
in a press release. "As the government, industry associations,
retailers and manufacturers work through the operational issues associated
with ensuring food safety, we can each become more aware and take greater
responsibility for the food we purchase."

Seventy-seven percent of consumers told IBM they want more
information on the food they purchase.

Seventy-six percent want to know about
a product’s origin(s). Roughly 76,000 people become ill each year due to
food poisoning with 5,000 dying.

"The ability to trace a contaminated product all the
way back to the source of production is key to modernizing our food industry.
It would also allow producers to more precisely identify the source of
a problem in order to improve production practices and could help narrow
the scope of recalls by more quickly identifying the specific plant or
country of origin," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety,
Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Discussion Questions: Are consumers
more concerned about food safety today than in the past? Are the right
steps currently being taken by the food industry and government to create
a significantly safer food supply?

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12 Comments on "IBM: Consumers Question Whether Food is Safe"


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Dick Seesel
Guest
11 years 10 months ago

The results of the survey aren’t surprising; consumers are understandably more concerned than ever about the safety of the food supply. Whether through suppliers’ negligence or poor oversight by regulatory agencies, there have been far too many incidences of safety issues in the past few years. When staples of the American diet like peanut butter and tomatoes are subject to this kind of scrutiny, the public reaction can be expected.

I don’t have a proposed solution, but clearly the food supply and agricultural industries have a challenge to rebuild consumers’ confidence. And there are too many “misses” on the part of the FDA and other government agencies. Food and grocery retailers and wholesalers are among the biggest losers in this environment–and the supply base tends to be highly fragmented–so it will take some industry collaboration and push to rebuild the faith of Americans in their own food supply.

Joan Treistman
Guest
11 years 10 months ago

I can’t put much stock in research that has not been described more fully. There’s no indication of how the questions were phrased.

For example, I can ask, “Are you even more concerned about food safety today than two years ago?” The answer to this question immediately implies the respondent has a concern with food safety.

Alternatively I can ask, “To what extent do you believe the food available for you to buy is safe?” Do you believe “all the food available is safe,” “the majority of food available is safe,” “some food available is safe,” “no food available is safe.” The answer to this question provides a more clear understanding of how the consumer feels about food safety.

Marc Gordon
Guest
Marc Gordon
11 years 10 months ago

Based on the fact that McDonald’s and other fast-food places have seen an increase in sales, I wonder if people understand the difference between food that is safe and food that is healthy.

Peter Milic
Guest
Peter Milic
11 years 10 months ago

In North American and Europe, food safety is a matter taken very seriously by both manufacturers and government agencies. In fact, it is quite possible that increased diligence and integrity with respect to food safety is the reason why consumers are more concerned about the food they consume. Information is more likely to be shared openly with the public and the response from manufacturers tends to be rapid and actions tend to reflect a genuine desire to err on the side of caution.

To illustrate with examples, response to the threat of Mad Cow disease and Avian Flu was the destruction of entire herds and flocks as a preventative measure. These become major news stories not because of the problems that occurred with loss of life, rather these were news stories because of the extensive precautions taken to protect the public. For those of us who enjoy traveling, we sometimes find ourselves in places where our confidence in the system is not comparable to how we feel in our own homeland.

Max Goldberg
Guest
11 years 10 months ago

I don’t know if consumers are more concerned about food safety today than in the past, but the food scares of today certainly get more publicity. With food conglomerates growing bigger, and more products and ingredients coming from outside the US, there is a higher likelihood that something will go wrong. When there is a food problem it gains instant notoriety in the media and on the Internet.

The food industry and government must take steps to reassure the public. This could include more transparency on country of origin (lookout China) and better review and enforcement of existing food safety laws.

Paula Rosenblum
Guest
11 years 10 months ago

It’s not really rocket science to come to this conclusion. We get bombarded by reports of E. coli, salmonella, melamine and other food recalls. The supermarkets have turned product recalls into a science–doing them as efficiently as possible. And…a LOT of us have gotten sick (including me).

Will it get better? Will the FDA get serious? If it does, it’ll get better. But of course that will take funding. Will the government provide adequate funding? I have no idea….

Ralph Jacobson
Guest
11 years 10 months ago

This survey was released on Wednesday this week during a Food Safety Forum on Capitol Hill. Several stakeholders spoke, including food manufacturers (from Europe, US and Canada), a member of Congress, The FDA, consumer advocates and food scientists. Several concurrent actions are being taken around the globe. This was the first time I know of that this wide range of “influencers” were gathered in one place in front of lawmakers in Washington, D.C. to address the problem. The forum proved overwhelmingly successful and the feedback was that it needed to be longer in duration since there was so much to discuss.

Bottom line, the coordination of all the activities around the globe has begun. It is up to all stakeholders to define the actions to secure the safety of the world’s food supply, and then implement across borders…. Easier said than done, but we won’t give up.

Bill Bittner
Guest
Bill Bittner
11 years 10 months ago
Man, talk about making the news rather than reporting it. There is really not enough information in the statistics provided to tell whether the trends are up or down, but it is obvious by the video and the analysis prepared by IBM that they want to build concern. There are a bunch of thoughts that come to mind here. The fundamental fact is that our food supply chain is amazingly safe. Despite the high profile recalls, the shear volume of products going through the food supply chain without difficulty is what makes it so difficult to apply technology. Even the IBM article admits that the top reason for consumers adjusting their purchasing has been to save money. I believe consumers are comfortable that businesses do not want to be associated with a contamination outbreak. They understand that lot numbers and production dates on retail containers provide them the information necessary to implement recalls. Even with serial numbers on every container and RFID readers at every transfer point feeding data into backroom databases, consumers will want… Read more »
Art Williams
Guest
Art Williams
11 years 10 months ago

While I hope that we can improve the performance of the government’s oversight of our food supply, I have serious doubts. As long as we are more concerned with hurting the producers and distributors than we are protecting the public, nothing meaningful will change. I fear it will take a full-scale disaster before the atmosphere will be right for significant change. That has been our history regarding things like this and I see nothing in sight that will improve this.

Charles P. Walsh
Guest
Charles P. Walsh
11 years 10 months ago

American Consumers perceptions of food safety have been raised as a result of a number of extensively covered contamination issues over the last several years including beef, spinach, candy, fruit and vegetables.

Does this increased awareness translate into a de facto consumer demand for more transparency and food source information? I don’t think so.

Does this also mean that consumers’ buying habits will be impacted in the long term? I don’t think so.

Should the food industry, through its associations and members, take a hard look at safety and source track? Absolutely.

American Consumers are forgetful; remember the beef and tomato and spinach scares? They all had short-term impacts but longer term, the consumers go back to doing what they do best, buying what they want.

It is an industry imperative and responsibility to manage the safety of their product from field to the dinner table and to do so before an unwieldy and costly government regulatory body takes the reigns of opportunity away from them.

Bruce D. Sanders, Ph.D.
Guest
Bruce D. Sanders, Ph.D.
11 years 10 months ago

Worries about food safety, especially when it concerns food for children, have always been serious business for those of us in first world countries. At the same time, I agree with Max Goldberg that food scares are getting more publicity than in the past. One reason for that is Web 2.0, in which the dire aspects of news can grow exponentially as information propagates on a social network.

With the increased clout the Obama administration is giving to the FDA, we can expect more food scares to show up, at least in the short term until the growers and manufacturers straighten out problems. For retailers and those of us who work with retailers, it can be useful to recognize that because of how our brains handle fears, some of a shopper’s behavior can get downright superstitious.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
11 years 10 months ago

I would second Marc’c comment: I think we have something of a semantics problem here in that people are preoccupied with short-term safety at the expense of long-term (health)…not that the two are necessarily exclusive, of course; but there’s nothing new or remarkable in that (indeed even the not-that-cynical can argue that pandering to unnecessary fears is one of Congress’ main responsibilities). But I have a different interest/concern: why would IBM–of all companies–be sponsoring this study?

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